Does March Madness Hang In The Balance?

What a difference a week can make. Just seven days ago the young Blue Devils were riding high - having won five straight ACC games by an average of 16.6 points per game. Since that time Duke has dropped two straight games that were there for the taking, leaving the Blue Devils with their backs against the wall.

It's almost impossible to contemplate, but Duke is literally 12 inches away from sitting at 7-2 and in a tie for first place in the ACC. Just a foot. If Josh McRoberts' attempted finisher in the lane at Virginia falls six inches shorter, Duke would have eeked out a victory in John Paul Jones Arena. Had DeMarcus Nelson's tip on another McRoberts' last second miss not flown the extra half a foot, Duke would have been able to stave off a furious Florida State rally.

Instead both shots ricocheted off the back rim leaving Duke with two more conference losses, and in danger of appearing on the NCAA Tournament bubble for the first time in more than a decade. Perhaps that's a bit dramatic, but the reality is that Duke is by no means the annual lock for an invite to the Big Dance.

Sure the Blue Devils still have a winning conference record in the conference that rates at the nation's toughest according to the latest RPI numbers. And, yes, Duke is rated eighth nationally in the same formula. That, coupled with an 18-5 overall record and a (likely) top 20 national ranking is not only good enough for a tournament invite, but likely a top four regional seed -- but only if the season ended today.

But, there's a reason that time of year is called March Madness, and Duke is just now beginning the month of February - a month that includes two games against national title threat North Carolina, two against a Maryland program that always seems to rachet up its level of play when Duke is the opponent, as well as rematches against Boston College, Georgia Tech, and Clemson.

In case you are scoring at home, there are no "gimmies" on that schedule - in fact there is a fairly good chance the Blue Devils will be considered underdogs in the majority of those contests - beginning with Wednesday's rivalry game with the Tar Heels, and probably carrying over into Sunday night's road trip to Boston College.

While head coach Mike Krzyzewski will no doubt have his team ready to play in every one of those contests, the reality is that his young team is battling not only the best programs the ACC has to offer, and the legacy of the teams who came before them in Durham -- these young players are battling what appears to be a snowball effect of negative momentum that could culminate with Wednesday night's match up with a Tar Heel team coming off a poor performance at NC State.

So, with seven conference games plus one more trip to Madison Square Garden to face St. John's remaining on the schedule, what will it take for Duke to secure their post season plans? Here's our picks, with the caveat that the Blue Devils should be favored to beat the Red Storm, and solidify their out of conference record at 14-1:

Between five and seven wins:
A best case scenario if ever there were one. This would mean the Blue Devils would head into the ACC Tournament without any cares or pressure regarding March Madness. With a record ranging from 24-7 to 26-5 overall and 10-6 and 12-4 in the ACC, the bigger questions would be if Duke would earn a two, three, or four seed in their respective region, and if they could ride the obvious wave of momentum toward an eighth ACC Tournament Championship in nine years.

Between two and four wins:
Still good enough to make the NCAAs, probably as a second tier seed (5-8 range) - meaning the second round match up would be against a high quality opponent. Duke would enter post season play with an overall record range of 21-10 to 23-8 with a conference mark falling between 7-9 and 9-7. This may be the most media friendly range for Duke, as the national analysts would certainly drone on an on about Duke's ability to play spoiler starting in the second round for some of the higher seeds.

Between zero and one win:
This is a worst case scenario and would put a young roster under tremendous pressure to advance to at least the semifinals of what promises to be a very competitive ACC Tournament - a tall order indeed for a team that would have lost somewhere between eight or nine of their last 10. Should this scenario occur, Duke would enter post season play with a record of either 19-12 or 20-11, occupying one of the more visible perches on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

So where does this leave things as the youngest team at Duke since World War II? The most likely scenario seems to be the middle range of two to four more conference victories, which would make the Blue Devils the team no higher seed would want to see appear when the subregional pairings are announced in early March. Of course, stranger things have happened in Durham before under the watchful eye of Krzyzewski with less talented teams.

That's why Wednesday's game is so crucial for Duke. Not because of the rivalry, and not because the current league standings. The match up against the Tar Heels represents a crossroad for this year's team. Win or lose, the way things go when the ball is tipped in Cameron will serve as a barometer for the rest of the season. A Blue Devil win could be the start of yet another rally. A Tar Heel blowout, or worse - another heart wrenching inability to convert with the game on the line, could signal the continuation of the snowball effect that began with the ball flying a combined 12 inches too far.

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